Personalities | Thomas Augustine Arne | Late Baroque | Opera
Arne was born in Covent Garden, so it is not surprising that he spent most of his life providing music for the theatre. In 1732 he formed an English opera company with Lampe and Carey, and their first production Amelia (1732) featured his sister Susanna (later Mrs Cibber, for whom Handel composed ‘He was despised’). Arne performed Handel’s Acis and Galatea for the public in a London theatre in 1732 before Handel had considered the possibility of doing so himself, having composed it for a private performance 14 years previously. He subsequently created English comic operas at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, including Rosamond (1733).
In 1737, Arne married Cecilia Young – a renowned soprano who had performed in Handel’s operas Ariodante and Alcina. Arne was invited to compose a musical setting of Milton’s Comus (1738), which established his reputation as a serious composer, and he then composed the masque Alfred (1740), which became popular in London due to the final number ‘Rule, Britannia’. He triumphed with his serious English opera Artaxerxes (1762). His only attempt at Italian opera, L’Olimpiade (‘The Olympiad’, 1765), was lost, probably with most of his music, in a fire at Covent Garden in 1808. Arne, more than any native English composer, had a knack of blending Italianate coloratura with English idioms, but even today he remains in the shadow of Handel.
‘Rule Britannia’ has become famous as a patriotic British anthem that is traditionally performed as an encore at the Last Night of the Proms. Its original version is the conclusion to Thomas Augustine Arne’s masque Alfred (1740), and is an aria for the tenor title-hero that also features chorus, trumpets and drums.
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